Column By Sharon Byrne
District Elections is gaining some momentum since the forum held during the last City Council race, in which nearly every candidate was against it, except those with no chance of winning. I keep trying to see the clear-cut case for district elections. What I see are separate, distinct threads of deep problems, long unsolved, being woven together, not always coherently, into a call for district elections.
I am probably not going to do this topic the justice it deserves. I am just watching the threads for now.
One that has merit is the problem of inner city neighborhoods. Didn’t think we had those here? Well we do, and they get continually shortchanged. When parts of the Eastside lack lighting and sidewalks, in a neighborhood over 100 years old, you have to wonder why. For those dedicated neighbors pushing to get basic infrastructure installed and maintained in these inner neighborhoods, it galls to see a new 1,000 steps staircase installed on the Mesa, or read about the latest improvement slated for State St.
Theoretically, the at-large system is supposed to provide citizens with 7 City Council reps that can address their concerns. But unless the good little citizen’s concerns align nicely with the Democratic Party establishment agenda, or other large agendas, help might be hard to find. It takes a lot to win a citywide election. You need party backing, lots of contributions, big endorsements, and other machinery. To get that backing, you have to attend to the backers’ concerns. I can guarantee you they’re not the concerns of the inner neighborhoods, unless there’s a convenient overlap tied to some social justice agenda currently in vogue.
A concerned resident who decides to run singing a tune of ‘let’s invest in the Westside’ will be met with polite silence in the voting blocks on the Mesa, Upper East and San Roque. The game of at-large elections is all about what you’re going to do for ME.
If they can’t win elections based on trying to fix their community, inner city residents can always call Public Works and beg. But even with that, some neighborhoods never seem to get high enough in the priority queue to get their sidewalks fixed, lights on their street, or other infrastructure needs met. There are rare cases, like the mayor going to bat for West Downtown lighting after a spate of violent crimes, but you need that willing ally on Council. District Elections provide a route to fix that problem.
Also woven into the sales pitch is the notion of Latino representation, and why we haven’t elected more than a token one to council every 10 years or so. And here the Democratic Party surprised folks at the forum. You’d think as the party of diversity, the poor, and the oppressed, they’d engage in a bit of soul-searching on why they haven’t achieved a better track record. Instead, they pushed the notion that this whole District Elections thing is a nefarious plot a la Koch Brothers to elect more Republicans.
I burst out laughing. But their agenda is clear. District elections threaten their power base and ability to keep electing their chosen farm team candidates to City Council via their solid, at-large election machinery.
The counter-argument is that these inner neighborhoods just need to vote. Except that the votes of the inner city areas, even if they register more voters, do not present any significant numerical challenge to the outer neighborhoods.
And that is probably the real reason they get underserved in the present at-large process; there’s no political penalty for ignoring them.
Well, until they riot. That tends to be a game-changer.
Latino PACs at state and federal levels get Latino candidates elected. Someone could start a local PAC, groom some solid candidates and run them. It would probably immediately be co-opted into service to the Democratic Party, the way PUEBLO was.
The final thread is a pervading sense that the activists of the 70’s are unhappy that the next generation didn’t take up their cause. Sigh.